October 11, 2011
Andy Rooney once said, “It’s just amazing how long this country has been going to hell without ever having got there.” Our country’s roughly 30-year march to perdition is the subject of Thomas Friedman’s and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, That Used to Be Us. Rooney may still be right, though – the authors identify, albeit not all that convincingly, a path to salvation.
In the tradition of previous Friedman books, the authors are addressing one of the leading burning issues of the day – in this case, whether America is in long-term decline.
Friedman, a New York Times columnist, and Mandelbaum, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, present their thesis in five parts. The march toward hell consumes parts I-IV of the book, and the authors finally don their rosy eyeglasses in part V, the last section. On balance, the ratio of bad news to good news isn’t heartening; there’s probably more hope to be found in Rooney’s simple quote than in the book’s entire final section.
Of course, Rooney may finally be proved overoptimistic – the reprieves of the past 60 years or so may turn out to have been just the ups and downs that complicate even the most inexorable downhill slide to nowhere. Consider, by way of parallel, the path toward what has been called the “oil endgame.” The trajectory will be – indeed, has been – a highly volatile one; yet, because oil is a finite resource, the eventual conclusion is inevitable. If no adjustments are made, then, as Friedman and Mandelbaum say in a different context, nature and the market will each determine “in its own time and its own way … when the music will stop, and when the adjustment to our lifestyle – which will be nasty, brutish, and long – will start.”
Making the most of dull writing
An amazing thing about the book, given the high-wattage duo who authored it, is its writing, which is often dull, even dumb. Consider this sentence: “America has been the world’s leading high-imagination-enabling society, and now it needs to become a hyper-high-imagination-enabling society.” It’s a sentence worthy of Heidegger, the most turgid of philosophers.
And yet, it all comes out all right – much more than all right – because Friedman is first and foremost a very fine journalist. (It’s impossible to tell what precise parts of the book to credit to Friedman and what to Mandelbaum, but Friedman’s mark is all over it.) You can make silly-sounding pronouncements all you want like the one in the last quote, but if you don’t substantiate them with convincing examples they won’t mean much.
Friedman and Mandelbaum substantiate their proclamations with very appropriate examples. Each generalization they make is underscored with an expertly selected collection of experiences, examples, and quotes. By the time you read a whole section of the book, their generalizations don’t seem the least bit fuzzy anymore.
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